Although Napoleon granted Jews full civil rights in 1807, socially they were still held in contempt by cultured Europeans. Tremendous pressure was placed on them to give up their strange particularistic ways and leap into the richness of science, music, art, literature, and philosophy. Many acquiesced, believing that the new 19th century nationalism would provide them with full identity. The old ways of superstitious religious rules and regulations were past. The new age of science and reason, of unlimited truth had arrived.
Abraham Geiger was born into this cultural milieu. Geiger received a traditional Jewish education, but he was also introduced to the world of German culture. He studied Greek and oriental languages in Bonn, where he met Samson Raphael Hirsch. The two of them became friends. Geiger became a rabbi, but he also participated in the scientific approach to Judaism.
He was horrified by the mass exodus of bright, intellectual Jews from Judaism. The cream of European Jewry was embracing secular nationalism, and Geiger viewed this as a tremendous loss. He and a group of reformers determined to stop the flood. The solution, as they saw it, was to make Judaism modern and acceptable to intellectual Europeans. In doing so, they hoped to keep young modern Jews Jewish and rid Europe of anti-Semitism. They believed that people hated Jews because Jews acted strangely, differently. By making Judaism a religion of reason, science, and aesthetics, they would enable Jews to remain both modern and Jewish.
They began with four aesthetic innovations which they justified within the existing framework of halachah:
1. Some of the prayers were said in the vernacular. The vast majority of the prayers were still in Hebrew.
2. The prayers were either recited or sung; the sing-song davening system was abolished because it threatened modern decorum.
3. The use of the organ was introduced to make the singing more decorous.
4. The sermon became the most important part of the service, and it was delivered in German.
Many European-cultured traditional Jews had no problems with these early innovations. Abraham Geiger was given a rabbinic post in Breslau. He was opposed by the traditional rabbi S. A. Titkin, but, after Titkin's death in 1843, Geiger became head of the majority of the Breslau Jewish community. In Breslau Geiger established a school for religious studies and a group for study of Hebrew philology. He was one of the most active participants in the Synods held by the Reform rabbis in Frankfort (1845) and Breslau (1846). It was these synods which resulted in traditional European Jews, led by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Geiger's old friend), separating from the reformers.
Led by Geiger and Samuel Holdheim, these synods set out to eliminate from Judaism every mark of national uniqueness. Since the goal of modern Judaism was to live a lifestyle that brought holiness into the modern world, a world of science and truth; all outmoded rabbinic legislation had to pass the test of reason, morality, and modernity to be acceptable. If a practice separated a Jew from the modern, secular world, then it was a Jew's religious obligation to renounce it.
Geiger believed that all of Jewish tradition was an evolutionary process. He saw every generation of Jews creating practices that expressed the eternal ethical laws inherent in Judaism.
The synods recommended the abolition of the dietary laws; wearing the kippah, tallit, and tefillin. Prayer references to a "Return to Zion," a personal Messiah, and resurrection of the dead were removed. References to the sacrificial cult were excised. Geiger opposed all prayer in Hebrew, but he was not able to convince the synods of this.
There was discussion about abolishing circumcision, but the rite remained.
Geiger and the other early founders of Reform Judaism burned with a messianic passion. They believed that what they were doing would save Judaism from the old-fashioned legislative stagnation of the rabbis and, at the same time, rid Europe of anti-Semitism by offering a Judaism that the secular world could honor and accept.
Sources: Gates to Jewish Heritage [Site is defunct]